In his 21st NBA season, having become the league’s all-time scoring leader, a four-time champion, and adding every day to his all-time record for most minutes played in regular season and playoff action, there are few experiences LeBron James has missed.
On Thursday, he will be able to check off playing in the semifinals of the NBA’s first in-season tournament, an event that seemed suspiciously hucksterish when it was introduced but has produced games with high drama and playoff-like passion during a time of the season that’s usually sloppy and sleepy.
“You got some of the most alpha-male competitors in the world,” James said Tuesday after the Lakers pulled off an emotional 106-103 victory over the Phoenix Suns in the tournament quarterfinals, “and if you give us an opportunity to play for something meaningful with an incentive, then you’ll get what you’re getting.”
This wasn’t the kind of game usually played on a random Tuesday in December, when most teams are still figuring out who they are and the playoffs seem far away. The fire that ignited the Lakers and the Suns came from more than merely chasing the gilded carrot of the $500,000 promised to each player on the team that wins the tournament.
James, who will turn 39 on Dec. 30, didn’t take over the game and score or assist on the Lakers’ first 19 points of the fourth quarter because he needed the extra check. He’s still driven by pride and has learned to think about the game as well as he plays it, reflected in a historic performance Tuesday.
“I want to continue to defy the odds, continue to have this battle with Father Time that for so long, everybody said, has been undefeated,” he said. “So, I’m trying to give him one loss.”
James played a game-high 40 minutes, scoring a team-high 31 points on a 12-for-25 shooting night that included two of four three-point attempts and hitting five of six free throws. He pulled down eight rebounds, earned 11 assists, and was active and sharp in recording a season-high five steals.
According to the team, he was the first Lakers player with 20 or more points, 10 or more assists and five or more steals in a game since Kobe Bryant against the Clippers on Nov. 17, 2004. He’s also the oldest player to record at least five steals since the stat became official in the 73-74 season, per ESPN Stats and Info.
He also was the first Laker with 30 or more points, 10 or more assists, five or more rebounds and five or more steals since Magic Johnson on April 30, 1989, against Portland.
“I think it’s definitely more mental than physical at this point of my career,” James said of how his ability to dominate a game has evolved over his career. “Just mentally showing up hours and hours and hours before the actual game to start to prepare my mind, body and soul for however many minutes I’m going to play. And commanding the most out of my teammates, commanding the most out of myself and holding everybody accountable including myself.
“The mental side is definitely the most stressful than the actual body. But like I said, if I continue to keep my mind as fresh as possible, continue to put the work in, then I’ll give myself an opportunity to just, I guess, surprise myself still with what I’m able to do for as long as I’ve been in this league and for as many miles as I’ve put on these tires.”
The “soul” part is intriguing. James said he’s inspired by the close relationship he has with his mother, wife, and three children. Several times during Tuesday’s game he pointed toward the stands to his son Bronny, who is preparing to return to the floor for USC’s basketball team after suffering cardiac arrest in July.
“I think when it comes to soul, I think it’s everything. It’s the energy that you put into it. The energy that you can get from your family members,” James said. “I think it’s just something that’s internal.
“And for me, I think when I have the opportunity, when it comes to the soul, I think my soul is divine in my family. I think about my wife and my mom and my three kids. They kind of generate all that and it makes the mind and the body a lot easier when you have those rocks and those staples at home. It makes it a lot easier.”
The Lakers will face New Orleans Thursday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in the West semifinal, after the Indiana Pacers face the Milwaukee Bucks in the East semi. The winners will meet for the title Saturday.
Of course, the Lakers’ ultimate goal isn’t to win the NBA Cup — note to commissioner Adam Silver: find a better name for the trophy next season — but winning could be a confidence booster as the Lakers continue to get past injuries and define themselves. Rui Hachimura (nasal fracture) returned Tuesday wearing a protective mask; Jarred Vanderbilt (heel) returned last Saturday.
“It allows you to see early what you’re made of and who can give you what, at what moment, and it’s refreshing to come out on the right side of a game like this,” coach Darvin Ham said of the in-season tournament. “This game had, for the 22nd game of the season, a ton of playoff intensity.”
James knows playoff intensity. The in-season tournament is something different, but the idea is the same. “It’s fun,” he said. For him, that applies as much to battling Father Time as it does to conquering new challenges.